Stop Saying Privacy Is Dead

Author(s): 
Publication Type: 
Other Writing
Publication Date: 
October 11, 2018

Co-authored by Evan Selinger and Woodrow Hartzog


Privacy protections are at risk yet again. The Five Eyes security alliance, which spans the governments of the United States, United Kingdom, Australia, Canada, and New Zealand, has issued a “Statement of Principles on Access to Evidence and Encryption,” which suggests that tech companies will face strong opposition if they don’t provide law enforcement with backdoors for encrypted communication. Executives from big tech companies are being hauled in front of Congress to answer for our jeopardized personal data. Facial recognition is running amok. Privacy keeps being assaulted, with seemingly no end in sight.

The landscape looks so bleak that it may feel like every shred of privacy we’ve ever had is gone or is guaranteed to go by the wayside. “Privacy doesn’t exist in a post-Facebook crisis era,” Cambridge Analytica whistleblower Brittany Kaiser declared, suggesting that as a consolation prize we should at least be able to make money selling data currently being taken from us. Media studies professor Ian Bogost says our chances of opting out of surveillance capitalismare so poor that he declares “the age of privacy nihilism is here.” Almost likening privacy invasions to a state of perpetual war, he predicts endless agony: “Everything you have done has been recorded, munged, and spat back at you to benefit sellers, advertisers, and the brokers who service them. It has been for a long time, and it’s not going to stop.”

Privacy fatalism might feel like a digital-age malady, but the underlying sentiment is actually old hat. Back in 1890, Louis Brandeis and Samuel Warren were so worried about early Kodak cameras that they wrote their famous law review article, “The Right to Privacy.” By the 1940s, critics had begun to ask whether privacy was dead, and by the 1950s and ’60s it was anxiously repeated until it turned into a meme. It’s tragicomical how oftenfolks announce privacy’s time of death and suggest that everything good about it is already lost.

Read the full piece at Medium